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July 14, 2004

Doctoring The Numbers

The Amazing Danny Kolb

by Rany Jazayerli

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Imagine spending a week at your cubicle at work, slaving away at that TPS report, and then as you hand it to your boss, she tells you, "Thanks, but the company just decided that they didn't need the report after all. I was just about to e-mail you the memo."

That's about how I feel right now. Having painstakingly put together an article on Danny Kolb, which centered around Kolb's incredible stretch of surrendering no extra-base hits all season, I was all set to have the article published during the All-Star Break--and then Kolb ran into the unstoppable force that is the PECOTA-powered Wily Mo Pena on Sunday.

(Yes, I'm aware that Jason LaRue homered off Kolb before Pena did. But I've been working as a journalist long enough to know it's considered poor form to let the facts get in the way of a good story.)

So the article is ruined.

But you're going to have to read it anyway, unless you really want to hurt my feelings. I've taken the liberty of making some small changes to the piece, in light of Kolb's Sunday meltdown. Most of the points made in the article still stand, even if the punchline has been spoiled.

* * *

One of the many great things about being a baseball fan is that you never know when you'll see something for the first time. It could be something that happens on the field, but it could also be something that manifests itself on the stat sheets.

To the best of my knowledge, no particularly unique event has occurred while Danny Kolb has been on the mound this season. But batter after batter, groundball after groundball, Kolb is getting outs in ways no pitcher--certainly no closer--has done before.

Consider this little tidbit: before this season, only five pitchers have ever had more saves than strikeouts in a season (min: five saves). They are:


Year  Pitcher                 IP    K     Sv
1948  Russ Christopher      59.0   14     17
1980  Don Stanhouse         25.0    5      7
1984  Dan Quisenberry      129.1   41     44
1991  Dave Smith            33.0   16     17
2002  Mike Williams         61.1   43     46

No pitcher has ever had a save-to-strikeout differential of greater than 3.0. Until now. In 33.1 innings, Danny Kolb has just 11 strikeouts--and 26 saves. In other words, Kolb's save-to-strikeout ratio is nearly twice as high as any other pitcher in major-league history.

(For the record, Danny Graves has 33 saves and 29 strikeouts himself. Graves' ridiculous save pace deserves its own article, actually, and if he keeps it up he may get one.)

Of course, this sort of comparison isn't fair to an old-time reliever like Dan Quisenberry, who averaged nearly three innings per save; Kolb has averaged barely three outs per save. So let's frame this differently. Here's the list of lowest strikeout rates by a pitcher in a season with 25+ saves:


Year  Pitcher                 IP    K     K/9     Sv
1980  Dan Quisenberry      128.1   37    2.60     33
1984  Dan Quisenberry      129.1   41    2.85     44
2004  Danny Kolb            33.1   11    2.97     26
1982  Dan Quisenberry      136.2   46    3.03     35
1983  Dan Quisenberry      139.0   48    3.11     45
1987  Roger McDowell        88.2   32    3.25     25

Ah, that's more like it. I may be biased, but it's my contention that Quisenberry is quite simply the most unique pitcher in baseball history. Imagine Kolb pitching the way he has this year, season after season...only throwing twice as many innings, and you have some idea of what Quisenberry was like in the 1980s.

Kolb, like Quisenberry, has thrived despite a miniscule strikeout rate in large part because of a freakish ability to keep the ball down. Here are Kolb's G/F ratios (per ESPN.com) over his career:


Year    GB/FB
1999     3.09
2001     2.56
2002     2.65
2003     3.33
2004     4.31

That, my friends, is some serious sink. In fact, it's the most serious sink on record. With the help of Keith Woolner, here's a list of the highest G/F ratios on record (min: 25 IP), from 1972 to 2003. Please note that, as groundballs and flyballs are not an official stat, the methodology used to define them differs from source to source, and from year to year. Using Woolner's methodology, Kolb's GB/FB ratio this year is 4.43, not 4.31; either way, it would top this list:

Year  Pitcher              IP    GB/FB
2001  Chad Bradford      36.2     4.21
1978  Tommy John        213.0     3.55
1982  Kent Tekulve      128.2     3.49
1977  Tommy John        220.1     3.47
1984  Steve Trout       190.0     3.46

Tommy John, Kent Tekulve, Steve Trout...that's a virtual Who's Who of Extreme Finesse Pitchers. And it's good to see Chad Bradford, who I dubbed Dan Quisenberry Jr. a few years ago, on the top of the list.

What's interesting is that Kolb isn't a finesse pitcher; he throws like a power pitcher, with a fastball in the mid-90s, and he was a power pitcher until this season. Last year, Kolb won the Brewers' closer job while striking out 39 batters in 41.1 innings; for his career, his strikeout rate was 6.66 per nine innings entering 2004.

Why his strikeout rate has plummeted this year is a story for another day, but the bottom line is that even if Kolb continues to whiff a batter every three innings, there's no reason he can't continue to be effective. In every other phase of the game, he dominates. He seems to have taken a page from the Robb Nen/Bryan Harvey playbook, and overnight has developed pinpoint control. After walking 68 batters in 120 career innings prior to this season, so far Kolb has walked just five batters all year. He's extremely difficult to run on (just four stolen bases allowed in his career; 0-for-1 this season). Obviously, he gets tons of double-play balls; he already has seven GIDPs this year, which is amazing when you consider he's only allowed 32 baserunners.

And finally, there's that .000 isolated power against him. As in, no extra-base hits. At least until July 11th.

How impressive is that? Eric Gagne has given up nine extra-base hits. Keith Foulke has given up six. Every other pitcher in baseball with 30 or more innings has given up at least four extra-base hits, save the incomparable Mariano Rivera, who has allowed only three.

But Kolb had allowed none. Going back to last season, he had not allowed an extra-base hit since Pedro Feliz tripled on September 14th, a span of 37 innings and 135 batters. How historic is that?

Not as much as you'd think, actually; Kolb still had a ways to go to get his name on this leaderboard, of the most consecutive batters faced without surrendering an extra-base hit:


Pitcher               Begin        End      Batters Faced
Luis Aquino         08/28/88     06/22/89       234
Bob Welch           05/13/80     06/20/80       223
Greg Cadaret        07/19/88     05/25/89       212
Terry Forster       06/30/78     06/30/79       185
Larry Andersen      07/04/90     09/26/90       180

Yes, Luis Aquino. No, I had no idea either, and he was pitching for the Royals at the time. This might explain how Aquino forged an underrated career as a middle reliever (career 3.68 ERA) despite a nothing strikeout rate. In 1992, despite whiffing just 11 batters in 67.2 innings--the second-lowest strikeout rate by any pitcher with 40+ innings since 1955--Aquino had a respectable 4.52 ERA.

If Larry Andersen hadn't gone on his streak, Jeff Bagwell might still be in Boston.

(For the morbidly curious, the longest streak for Greg Minton, who once went three seasons--and over 250 innings--without surrendering a homer, was 167 batters.)

While Kolb fell short of the list, in the context of his era, his streak is nearly as impressive. In the 1990 American League, teams averaged of 2.52 extra-base hits per game. This year, National League teams are averaging 3.11 long hits per game.

But not against Danny Kolb.

It's been a season full of wondrous surprises in Milwaukee--from Lyle Overbay's run at the Earl of Dublin, to Ben Sheets' instant metamorphosis into a prime-of-career Curt Schilling, to Brooks Kieschnick's continued success as the first two-way player in generations. For the first time since Harvey's Wallbangers, the Brewers are Must-See TV.

The way Kolb is pitching, though, you would be forgiven for turning off the television when the Brewers have a ninth-inning lead.

Unless, of course, Wily Mo Pena is scheduled to bat.

Rany Jazayerli is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Rany's other articles. You can contact Rany by clicking here

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